Strings Construction (round wound, flat top, silk & steel etc.)
A frequent question that I hear is “…which strings are right/best for my instrument?”. Although there’s no single answer to this question, the good thing is that a set of mandolin strings is rather inexpensive, costing from 5 dollars to 50, tops. Compare that with the cost of a set of cello strings, and you quickly understand that the mandolin allows you to experiment with different types and manufacturers of strings!
The mandolin uses eight strings paired in four unison sets and tuned GDAE (*). That is the common part of (almost) all mandolins strings, but there are differences.
The most notable differences are:
the thickness of strings, (gauge)
the material the strings are made of,
the construction of the string.
(*) You may find also some alternative tunings and setup for mandolins. For example the Bandolim,i.e. the Brazilian Mandolin is a 10-string instrument. It has an additional unison pair of strings tuned C, below the bass G.
Are Heavy Mandolin Strings Better?
The mandolin strings gauge, described usually with the terms light/medium/heavy is directly related with the tension strings place on the instrument. Heavy strings place more tension than light strings and therefore produce a more powerful sound.
Also, heavy strings are harder to play; you need to apply more force on a fret in order to play the note. This makes playing fast more difficult and as you understand you must find a balance between speed and sound power.
Finally some mandolin types may be damaged with heavy strings, as for example old bowlback mandolins. Newer mandolins like the carved ones used in the United States are made stronger, and therefore typically use heavy strings.
So the conclusion is:
“…use heavy strings for more powerful sound but only if you are sure it will not damage your instrument!”
Do Phosphor Bronze Strings Sound Better Than Nickel Strings?
The type of alloy used as the strings wrap wire determines the tonal quality of the strings. It affects tone as well as projection.
The mandolin strings materials can have a dramatic impact on tone, from mellow to warm to bright. This difference is very important, as it has different effect on different mandolins. What does this mean?
Some mandolins are made very bright, so you may consider using strings producing a warm tone in order to have the result you like, or vice versa.
Also some types of music are better performed with a particular sound. Take jazz for example, and think the sound you expect to hear from an instrument. Is it mellow or bright? If it is mellow, then yes, Phosphor Bronze may be better for playing jazz with a mandolin.
So my advise is:
“…experiment with different types of strings, till you decide the type of strings that produce the best sound with your mandolin for the particular type of music you are playing.”
Are Flat Tops Strings Better For Fast Mandolin Playing?
The mandolin strings construction can have a dramatic impact on feel and playability. For example I prefer flat top strings, as fingers just slide up and down the fretboard with ease. In my case this is not only related with speed but also with sound. Sliding notes on flat top strings produce a very impressive sound! On the other hand, flat tops sound tends to be “darker” than other types, so…
“…It is advised to experiment with different types of strings, till you decide the type of strings that suits you best.”
How Often Do I Need to Change Strings?
Replacing old mandolin strings with a new set will in general improve the sound and playability of your instrument. A rule of thumb is to change strings every 1-3 months, but that depends on playing frequency. There are performers that prefer to install a new set of strings in each performance, but most players change strings when they notice some issue. So my advise is…
“…replace your mandolin strings when you notice tuning problems or less bright sound; in any case try to change strings every 3 months”
What are the Differences Between Round-Wound, Flat-Top and Silk-Steel Mandolin Strings?
Round wound strings are the most popular and are offered by almost all manufacturers. They deliver a textured feel most players are familiar and comfortable with. They are also the cheaper ones.
Flat tops are constructed from finished round wound strings. They are further processed to carefully flatten the tops of the windings through a polishing technique.
Flat Tops are known to deliver a smoother feel and reduced finger noise with the flexibility and tension of a round wound string.
Flat tops are sometimes preferred by professional artists for recording. They are also used by classical orchestras to minimize “noise” picked up by microphones during live performances.
Silk-Steel are made of silver-plated copper wrap wire interwoven with silk-like fibers for soft, easy fingering and a mellow tone. They are preferred by many folk and finger style players.
Are All Mandolin Strings Made With Steel-Core?
Here is a nice image (Source: D’Addario) that shows how the string is constructed by a core and a wrap wire.
Mandolin strings tend to be steel core (and mainly solid steel). All options are:
Spiral steel core
Braided steel core
Solid steel core.
There is no reason to spend more time on the core material, as what is really important is the wrapping material of the mandolin strings.
What Are the Differences Between String Wrap Material?
Strings wrap material is important. Electric and acoustic mandolin strings are typically made using a steel core wire with a “wrap wire” wound onto the core.
The type of alloy used as the wrap wire determines the tonal quality of the strings. It affects tone (from mellow to bright) as well as projection. It also affects playability (combined with construction) and durability (combined with coating).
Five types are typically used as following (from mellow to bright). Here’s a quick reference guide:
Silver-plated Copper – Typically used for classical and folk due to their soft, comfortable feel and warm, mellow tone
Phosphor Bronze – pioneered by D’Addario in 1974, they are known for their full, rich, acoustic tone. Phosphor bronze provides a warm (mellow), but at the same time bright tone.
Brass (or 80/20 Bronze) – 80/20 Bronze (also referred to as brass) acoustic instrument strings provide a brighter tone than phosphor bronze. They have great acoustic clarity coupled with extra-bright, loud tone.
Stainless Steel – provide an even brighter, more cutting tone than brass strings. They’re generally used on electric instruments, but can be used on acoustic instruments as well.
Nickel – provides great overall tone and sound and is used by best-selling strings of electric instruments. For acoustic instruments not preferable.
The best idea here is to experiment with all types, till you find which type you prefer. Note also that not all brands are the same. That means your experimentation may take … more time!
How Is String Gauge Different Than String Tension?
The gauge is the thickness of a string’s diameter as measured in thousandths of an inch (e.g. 0.11, .16 etc.).
It is better to start with sets of strings with predefined gauges. As you experiment more, you may find that you prefer a specific chord (e.g. the E string or the A string) to be of a specific gauge. It is then when you start buying strings in pairs instead of sets.
As gauges come with many varieties, the industry quickly realized that it needed to categorize gauges to few categories to help buyers easier select strings. Thus, the tension term came into use. Strings tension is typically labeled as low, middle, high (similar to light, medium, heavy).
Typically, bowlback mandolins will use light tension strings, flatbacks will use medium strings and carved f-type will use high tension strings.
This rule of course is not strict. Many classical mandolinist playing in concerts, select high tension strings, as these tend to increase the projection of their instrument, something very important when giving concerts. Of course high tension strings may damage a mandolin neck on the long run, so the advise of a luthier should be asked before such action.
On the other hand, as high tension strings require more strength (at the left-hand fingers), some players will select to use lower tense strings to improve their speed!
Do I Need Ball-End or Loop-End Mandolin Strings?
The string end term is used to describe how the string is attached to the tail piece.
There are two options here, ball-end strings and loop-end strings.
You have to select the one that fits to your instrument. How can you do that? The pictures below will help you distinguish the two types, and select the right one.
Why Is Strings Length Important?
String length is defined as the sum of three distances:
from the ball or loop end to the bridge
from the bridge to the nut (i.e. the string‘s vibrating length)
from the nut to the tuning peg.
When playing custom instruments, the scale of the instrument may vary. It is then when you need to measure the scale (from bridge to nut) of your instrument but also the distance from nut to tuning peg and string end to the bridge, summarize them and use the result as your guide to select custom strings with the proper length.
What Are Some Common Mistakes That Damage Strings?
If you put strings on an instrument which is smaller than the one which the string is designed for, there will be a considerable loss of tension and sound quality. Apart from this, the thicker playing length of the string will end up being wound around the tuning peg, which – especially with thicker strings – will result in damage to the core, loss of tonal quality and strings breaking. This is one of the most common mistakes.
If you put strings on an instrument which is larger than the one the strings are designed for, e.g. on a large viola, it will have the same effect as tuning the string to too high a pitch, or starting tuning from the highest string to lowest instead of the other way around. Doing this even once can severely fatigue the string or break it.
Sharp edges on the bridge, the nut or the tailpiece will damage the string, and can lead to breakage.
The same can happen if the channels in the nut are too narrow, so these should be of sufficient width and prepared with a little graphite from a soft pencil.
Another mistake to avoid when re-stringing the instrument is improperly winding the string around the tuning peg. The correct number of windings is between four and five, without any bending of the string between nut and tuning peg and without jamming it against the peg box.
Typically used for classical music due to their clear and brilliant tone.
These strings are flat wound on chrome steel and highly polished except the plain e-string of the Mandolin set, which is made of tin plated silver steel. They have a steel core made of special alloy with high elasticity and durability. the sound of the Mandolin strings is clear and brilliant.